House vote could lead to TikTok ban in US: what’s up and what’s next?


No, TikTok, the massively popular short-video app, has not been banned in the United States – yet. But the vote in the House of Representatives could definitely lead to extreme measures. What happened, and what’s around the corner?

The House overwhelmingly passed a bill on Wednesday that would give TikTok's Chinese owner ByteDance about six months to divest the US assets of the short-video app, or face a ban, in the greatest threat to the app since the Trump administration.

To be fair, TikTok has already been in Congress’s crosshairs – but this time, the ultimatum sounds serious.

That’s because if ByteDance declined to spin off TikTok, the bill would require app store providers to stop carrying the platform. This would effectively shutter its operations in the US.

Various commentators have also noticed how quickly the bill, called the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, reached the House floor. However, it’s the election year, and the lawmakers say misinformation has the potential to spread like wildfire on TikTok.

However, even though the bill passed 352-65 in a bipartisan vote, its path in the Senate is more uncertain.

Some senators favor a different approach to regulating foreign-owned apps, and the fact of the matter is that a single member could block swift consideration on the Senate floor by placing a hold on it. Libertarian senator Rand Paul has already indicated he would be ready to take this step.

Besides, TikTok is and will keep fighting back. TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, posted a video shortly after the House vote, defending the company and saying it would exercise its legal rights to prevent a ban.

@tiktok

Response to TikTok Ban Bill

♬ original sound - TikTok

The bill indeed gives the firm 165 days to file a legal challenge after it is signed by President Joe Biden, and he said last week he would do so.

Why push now?

Of course, the House bill is only the latest attempt to limit the spread of TikTok in the US. For instance, President Donald Trump tried to ban it through an executive order in 2020 but failed after courts blocked the attempt.

In November, another judge blocked a Montana state ban on TikTok use after the firm again sued. Montana was the only state in the US that has attempted to ban TikTok for all users.

But now, the bill’s backers in the House say that TikTok poses “a grave threat to US national security” because of its Chinese ownership. The app could be used to influence US public opinion or harness user data to spy on Americans, the lawmakers say.

This is all very fast. The vote came just over a week after the bill was proposed following one public hearing with little debate, and followed action in Congress stalling for more than a year.

The political climate in Washington, at a time when many politicians do not want to be seen as soft on China during an election year, increasingly favors the bill. That’s why it’s not only Republicans talking about the alleged threat – influential Democrats have also voted for the bill.

What about opposing voices?

But not all of them. Democratic member of the House Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez called the bill “incredibly rushed” and said she had doubts about antitrust and privacy.

House Democratic Whip Kathleen Clark, Arizona Senate candidate Ruben Gallego, and the top Democrats on the Judiciary, Ways and Means, Transportation, and Intelligence committees also voted against the bill.

Senate Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell, who will play an important role in the Senate's next move, said she wants legislation "that could hold up in court" and is considering a separate bill but is not sure what her next step is.

Even Democrats who support the bill are pushing back on the idea that an outright ban of TikTok is on the cards – they say that the goal is to rid TikTok of foreign control. Finally, others have floated alternative proposals that would counter foreign-controlled apps more broadly.

Trump seems to have reversed his position and came out against a potential TikTok ban in an interview with CNBC. He said he still thought TikTok was a national security risk, but it was still better than Facebook, which he called “an enemy of the people.”

But is TikTok a special case?

TikTok, used by about 170 million Americans, including the majority of young people, is indeed owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based company. It was founded in 2012 and launched the Chinese short-video app Douyin in 2016. Next year, the international version of that app, TikTok, was launched.

In a release last year, TikTok said that about 60% of ByteDance “is beneficially owned by global institutional investors such as Carlyle Group, General Atlantic, and Susquehanna International Group.”

Another 20% was owned by the company employees, and the founder Zhang Yiming had the rest of the shares to himself.

Still, even though ByteDance has repeatedly said it hasn’t ever shared data of US users with Beijing, the company is actually required to turn over information to the government authorities.

Analysts say China would probably disagree with any sale of TikTok or its divestiture. In fact, the country’s Foreign Ministry has already criticized the legislation, saying, “Though the US has never found any evidence of TikTok posing a threat to the US national security, it has never stopped going after TikTok.”

It would seem Beijing cares pretty deeply about a supposedly independent company. Then again, The Information reported just this week that ByteDance has been actually boosting ties with China and has invested in a state-backed chip company.

What happens next?

TikTok is not about to shut down in the US, at least immediately. As mentioned above, the bill still needs to be approved by the Senate before reaching President Biden’s desk.

But if the bill becomes law, ByteDance would have six months to find a buyer for TikTok before the ban took effect. Courts could also have their say if TikTok or ByteDance sued.

TikTok’s spokesperson already spoke Monday of the bill’s ability to strip Americans of their right to free expression. That’s probably why the bill could be challenged on constitutional grounds.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups are also arguing the bill is unconstitutional on free speech and other grounds.


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